In one of the defining moments of the Russian Empire, 300,000 workers marched in St. Petersburg to deliver a petition requesting rights from the Tsar. Such a request had been made a decade before when Nicholas II had taken the throne, but the young Tsar refused to give up the ideals of benevolent autocracy, declaring he believed in them "as firmly and as strongly as did my late lamented father." Alexander III was known for his repressive and reactionary stance against movements by the people, and Nicholas seemed hell-bent on following in his footsteps.
While the leadership refused reform, change was flowing through the suffering masses. Marxists traded literature and met in rallies, Leo Tolstoy spread his ideals of Christian anarchy, and a Russian Orthodox priest named Georgy Gapon sought to bring the people together in reconciliation with their iron-handed leaders. Newly graduated from seminary, Gapon came to teach at an orphanage and work firsthand with impoverished workers. He began to organize, creating the police-approved "Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of St. Petersburg" and even cooperating with radicals to maintain peace during progress. On January 8, 1905, a general strike protesting conditions and the Russo-Japanese War brought St. Petersburg to a standstill. Seizing the opportunity, Gapon gathered his followers and further volunteers totaling more than 300,000 for a delivery of petition for rights. Members calling for violence were not permitted to join, and every one was checked for weapons. They began a march to the Winter Palace where the Tsar was staying, singing patriotically on the way.
Nicholas had planned to leave St. Petersburg the day before as the strike seemed to become dangerous, but a fierce headache forced him to stay in bed. The next morning, he awoke to see the people gathering, and he watched as the hundreds of thousands approached. The Imperial Guard posted shot into the air to encourage the people to disperse and then prepared to fire into the crowd to force them away. Nicholas, seeing a new light as so many implored him to give them rights, conceded. He called the guards to stand down and made an impromptu speech from his balcony assuring his people that he would read their petition. Father Gapon was summoned, and Nicholas spent the evening questioning the priest and his ideals. Gapon convinced him to follow more in the footsteps of his grandfather, the conciliatory Alexander II.
The people returned to their homes and, that following Monday, to work. Nicholas began reform slowly, resisting political change, but allowing Gapon great power in organizing aid via the church and gifting him with substantial donations. As the war in the East continued poorly for Russia, Nicholas used propaganda based on the good deeds to keep the people in a tolerant mood. That August, he sent a delegation of Roman Rosen, Ambassador to Japan, and Sergei Witte, at one time Nicholas' most valued adviser and who had resigned because of the Russian efforts toward the East, to America to work a treaty with the Japanese. News of the end of the war brought great joy to Russia, especially with the generous terms the Russians were able to gain. Witte returned to Nicholas' government and guided the Tsar in formulating the October Constitution, creating a universally elected Duma less than two months later. While Marxists cried that the Constitution had not gone far enough, they were in the small minority as most held faith in their Tsar.
Over the next decade, Russia would see numerous reforms and public works projects, ending the depression that swept over the empire. The military was modernized, opening many new factories and well as academies where soldiers were trained in tactics rather than rushed through boot camps. Public schools opened in 1912, funded by taxation but built and initially operated by donation from Nicholas. Services became a large source of reform, managing food banks and coal repositories for long Russian winters, and pogroms were ended against the Jews while granting new rights to minorities. Gapon increased in influence with the Tsar, even eclipsing the Tsarina's favorite Rasputin.
During the World War, the Russian army was outmatched by the pressing forces of the Germans, but tactics enabled the soldiers to duplicate the defensive trench warfare strategy seen on the Western Front. While the war became essentially a draw, the Russians were able to secure good terms during the Treaty of Versailles in 1917. New stability followed Russia through the next ten years with booming trade in Russia's rich resources as Europe struggled to rebuild itself. During the Long Depression of the 1930s, Tsar Nicholas II would be admired for his government's organization in relief and building programs. His funeral in 1941 would be attended by nearly a million Russians while the nation mourned for a week over the lost Nicholas the Great.
In reality, Nicholas fled St. Petersburg, and the guards opened fire on the crowds marching in protest. While the Tsarists admitted 96 dead and 333 injured, estimates range up to 4000 deaths by gunfire and trampling. Rioting spread through the city, and Gapon closed his Assembly and left Russia. He returned in October as the concessions of the October Manifesto pointed toward brighter times, but he would be assassinated by the Marxists, who gathered great influence as faith in the Tsar drained from the people.